EU leaders to consider military crackdown on Libya traffickers

Italian frigate

Italian naval vessel Frigata Virginio Fasan. 2nd November, 2014. [Shutterstock]

EU leaders gathering in Brussels today (23 April) will consider launching a military operation against human traffickers in Libya, held responsible for the deaths of thousands of migrants this year in the Mediterranean, a draft statement showed.

In the draft statement seen by AFP on Wednesday, leaders will commit to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”.

The EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini “is invited to immediately begin preparations for a possible security and defence policy operation to this effect, in accordance with international law”, the draft added.

A diplomatic source said the EU’s 28 member states were widely mobilised to approve the statement’s wording, reflecting a growing willingness to launch an operation to fight the traffickers.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Monday evoked the possibility of “targeted interventions” against the Libya-based human smugglers that would fall short of a full military intervention.

“You can’t be serious about this problem if you don’t take Prime Minister Renzi’s proposals seriously though you have to go through the legal and operational issues,” said a senior European official on the condition of anonymity.

If accepted, the operation would be the first time EU governments turned to military options to fight illegal migration towards its shores.

“It’s implementation would take time. It’s complicated,” the diplomatic source warned.

EU leaders opened the summit on the Mediterranean migrant crisis at 1400 GMT Thursday, under major pressure to stem the increasingly deadly flow of refugees trying to reach Europe by sea from Africa.

Calls for action mounted after a devastating ship disaster on Sunday, in which 800 people are feared to have died off Libya.

The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to EU border control agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the often dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

>> Read: Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year

The chaotic situation in Libya has sparked a rise in migrant boats setting out for Europe from its unpoliced ports carrying refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

In 2013, Italy’s previous government initiated the search-and-rescue operation "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea" after hundreds drowned in an incident off the coast of Lampedusa.

But Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of €9 million a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

That made way for the European Union's border control mission, Triton. However Triton, which has a much smaller budget and narrower remit, has been criticised by humanitarian groups and Italy as inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem.

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